Teaching and Learning Forum 97 [ Contents ]

ARROW: On Target with the World Wide Web

Dr Matthew Allen
School of Social Sciences and Asian Languages
Curtin University of Technology
Since 1995, the critical thinking unit which I teach at Curtin University of Technology, Applied Reasoning 200, has included an Internet-based component known as Applied Reasoning Resources of the Web (ARROW). In this paper I briefly outline the goals, processes and outcomes of my use of the World Wide Web and related applications in this undergraduate teaching environment. ARROW is used both by internal and external students, though with significant differences in patterns of use and access. The aim of my paper is to provide some basic background which will enable me to run a more interesting and challenging session at the conference. I do, however, highlight here three issues: the capacity of the Web to provide a simple mechanism for information presentation; the use of email and Usenet (newsgroups) for development of a 'third way' of student-staff communication; and the potential of the Web's hypertext environment offers for semi-structured independent learning. My goal is to promote discussion, in the session which accompanies this paper, of the dangers and advantages which Internet technologies might hold for higher education. While not forgetting the very important issues relating to student learning, my focus throughout the paper will be on the impact of these technologies on academics and teachers.

Introduction

Time seems to be speeding up. New ideas and technologies have accelerated our culture into an almost unrecognizable reality, and those on the frontier tell us that this is only the beginning (Rushkoff, 1994: 2)
From learned commentaries by intellectuals like Nicholas Negroponte (1995) and Sherry Turkle (1995) to the glossy techno-fetishism of Wired magazine; from the policy hype of numerous university administrators and advisers to the seductive imagery of Microsoft, Apple and IBM advertisement: the Internet is big and getting bigger. Whatever the actual processes and dynamics of its use in innumerable contexts and locations, the Internet and in particular the World Wide Web (WWW) has rapidly acquired an immense presence in our cultural sensibilities at the end of the second millennium. Journalists such as Rushkoff cannot help but draw the conclusion that computers have changed life so much and so fast that we didn't even notice it was happening.

What does it mean for academics? Is it yet another educational technology, to be dabbled with, utilised to some extent, seen as a source of frustration and bother, and then finally discarded in favour of something newer and more alluring? Or does it demand from us a significant re-organisation of the way we think about ourselves educators and knowledge workers and the way that we perform our everyday tasks in teaching and learning? How does the Internet, with related technologies and applications, make education something different from how we 'always' thought about it?

I do not propose to answer these questions. They are, quite possibly, unanswerable since the knowledge and experience needed to answer them are not yet available. We will only be able to come to conclusions about the interrelationship of digital technology and humanity that these questions place in doubt when events have already produced the answers that we seek. In any event, my purpose in raising the questions is simply to place the following discussion of a very practical and mundane development of the WWW into a particular intellectual and cultural context. For nothing to do with the Internet can ever be seen simply in terms of teaching and learning: it always speaks with the traces of the far wider circumstances of cyber transformation.

The practical development to which I refer is the creation and use of ARROW -- Applied Reasoning Resources on the Web. ARROW began life as part of Curtin Learning Link, a DEET-funded development to utilise computer-mediated communications to improve the delivery of distance education: it soon became apparent, however, that the critical mass of students necessary for trials of new WWW-based learning environments was not available through external education: the students most in need of such innovations in distance-erasing technology were those least likely to have easy access! Hence ARROW has been developed primarily in relation to internal, on-campus teaching and learning and is only now being extended so as to meet the requirements of off-campus learners.

ARROW: What and Why

ARROW, in its current manifestation, is a set of interrelated Web pages that offer students, firstly, basic information on Applied Reasoning (how to enrol; what the unit is about; how is it structured; and so on). Second, it provides considerable material designed to integrate directly with the taught component of the unit (additional problems and exercises, including answers; feedback on assignments; pointers to additional resources, both in the library and on the Web; more information on issues covered in less detail in the unit). Third, it provides an easily accessed pathway for the use of email and newsgroups (building on the earlier technologies associated with electronic mail). In 1997, it will also offer students a learning opportunity about knowledge, subjectivity and related philosophical issues called 'Pathway for Knowledge'. This 'Pathway' stands alone: students may use it without reference to the materials and classes in the unit proper. Although they will necessarily benefit from the interaction between classes and the Pathway, it will be designed to allow them to work in their own time, at their own pace, pursuing their own interests and -- most of all -- make the connections between the rest of the unit and the Pathway in their own manner (Allen, ARROW, http://www.curtin.edu.au/learn/unit/10846/)

My goals in developing ARROW were as follows. First, I wanted to reduce the vast amount of paper that was produced and circulated within my unit (which, in 1995, had over 150 students). This decision was both economic and environmental. The Web offered easy possibilities for simply replacing hard copy with electronic copy. Second, I wanted to explore the way in which email could assist on-campus students in communicating with each other and their teachers, using the semi-anonymous and asynchronous nature of email to bypass problems caused by the limited opportunities for face-to face discussion in contemporary higher education. Third, I wanted to explore the possibilities for Web-based self-learning, using the digital environment to act as a remote manager and structure-provider. I assumed that the Web would, in contrast to the considerable technical difficulties involved in producing CD-ROM-based materials, or even disk-based materials, offer a an easy way in which I, as teacher, could be physically absent but virtually encoded into the materials the students were using.

I should add that, I was quite conscious of my desire to use this new technology. I was especially taken by the possibility of controlling and organising an array of teaching and learning materials so that 'I' (the teacher) was still present in a way that is impossible in the print environment but which overcomes the instantaneous 'eventness' of lectures and tutorials. In other words, ARROW came out of a mix of pragmatic, professional and personal reasons. Yet it also came out of the social and cultural forces which make the technologies of computers and communications a force that is beyond individual human control -- a force that can be resisted, negotiated, avoided, ignored but which nevertheless acts upon us (See Penley & Ross, 1991: 18). To this extent, the question which underpinned the development of ARROW was not 'why should I do this?' but, rather, 'why not?'.

ARROW: Negatives and Positives

Introducing an Internet component such as ARROW to Internet teaching proved to be a complex task. It would have been impossible without considerable financial support (running to some $18,000 in the period 1995-1997) and in-kind assistance from the Curtin Computing Centre. The key difficulties were not, however, in the actual production of material for the Web (which is essentially easy but time-consuming). Rather they were in convincing and assisting students to get involved. Time had to be devoted in lectures to giving general advice to students on how to access ARROW; email accounts had to be generated and distributed, causing particular problems for students enrolling after the unit had started. Most of the students had little or no experience with the Internet and, uncertain of just what ARROW might offer them (and their calculus here was, essentially, driven by a quest for higher grades and as little as possible extra time and effort), they were generally reluctant to plunge in and learn as they went along. It proved impossible to give generic advice to students regarding such simple matters as 'How do I get to the ARROW site' because the various computer labs around campus are not organised uniformly. There was a particular problem with email. While Web browser software gives access to email and newsgroups, it is hard for students to personalise their email use on computers that are available to all students at the university. Hence, for some email functions (including private email use), students also had to learn to use the text-based PINE program running directly on the university's VAX mainframes. This imperative made the learning curve impossibly steep for some students and hampered attempts to sell ARROW on the basis of its ease-of-use.

Distance education students have also suffered problems of access. In 1995, the first year of use, only 2 out of 80 students managed to use ARROW at all; this year, some 15 out of 70 students were able to make use of the Internet to help them study, but not without a considerable investment in time, money and effort from many of them. These difficulties had ramifications for the unit as a whole. Any external student unable to gain access had to be provided with hard copy of most of the material on the ARROW site so that they were not disadvantaged. Hence, even with the difficulties faced by students on-campus, I am still convinced that the Internet is more applicable to on-campus teaching because, for those students, there are many fewer equity issues: it is not inappropriate to assume that (as, for example, with library use) almost all students have an equal opportunity to avail themselves of ARROW. While students were encouraged (via reward marks) to utilise the Web, alternative arrangements were easily made via the existing 'participation' assessment in the unit.

Some of these difficulties reflect my own inexperience with the technology; some point to the continuing gap between the hype about cyberspace and the social conditions in which computers are actually used; and some are symptoms of much more intractable problems of institutional student-teacher relations. Yet, for all the negatives, I remain highly positive about the future use and development of ARROW. The evidence from the use of email and the newsgroups is that students who manage the jump to this new form of communication really benefit. For example, students who speak English as a second language often find spoken communication with a tutor or lecturer unsatisfactory: by using email they can frame their questions carefully and then read replies as slowly and in as much detail as their English proficiency demands. Students who, by reason of work or other time commitments cannot easily come to see teachers to discuss concerns, can overcome this problem via email.

The ARROW newsgroup was a most satisfying experience. Over 700 messages were posted during the semester. While many were simple 'hellos', others raised important practical or conceptual issues relating to the unit; students supported one another by trying to answer questions about a range of diverse topics (from 'when is the assignment due?' to 'what is the meaning of life?'). Most importantly, the students ran the newsgroup themselves. Once I had initiated a couple of discussions, I did not post many messages -- preferring to reply privately to students if I felt that they needed help which was not forthcoming from the group. Indeed, by the end of the semester, I was hardly contributing at all and had ceased even to closely monitor the group. In one instance, a message came from outside the student-group which was insulting to one of the students: a number of her colleagues leapt to her defence and the interloper did not return.

The more pragmatic use of the Web for simply publishing large amounts of helpful information also seemed to be successful. Certainly, many students visited these pages and, from some anecdotal evidence, they benefited from the material therein. However, the real success can be measured by reference to the financial crisis now gripping the university system. It would be impossible now to provide students in the unit with the more than 80 hard copy pages of information which can be found virtually for free on the Web. I am not yet in a position to comment on the capacity of the WWW to provide effective hyper-text environments for learning. However, as the Pathway for Knowledge develops further (and is to be introduced in 1997), it is clear that much of the material which is presented en masse in linear format (the 80 pages just referred to) can be far more effectively offered to students in smaller chunks, linked together by a largely hidden network of hypertextual interconnections which students themselves will discover.

Some ideas for discussion and contemplation

I wish to conclude by proposing, on the basis of my experiences with ARROW, that radically new models and metaphors are needed through which we can conceptualise the processes of digital teaching and learning. While I believe that the detail of my experiences (such as, for example, the need to tell some students that The WWW is a point-and-click environment -- a few thought that one simply looked at it) is valuable, I would argue that the primary difficulty at the moment is one of theorising or even just 'imagining' the mode of knowledge work that the growing omnipresence of the Internet might allow or even demand. The devil might be in the detail, but the success or failure of academics' attempts to surf the waves of the information revolution will lie in their ability to organise the interpretive frameworks through which that detail is worked out.

I pose then, quite provocatively, the following model. Teaching, when digitally transformed through networked computing, will become like film-making. Some teachers will be auteurs, writing, producing, directing, starring in and distributing their own products. They will be highly skilled in the use of computers and the management and manipulation of digital information. Others will be part of big studio productions in which the labour is divided according to skills and abilities and not to 'content ownership'. For example, a history department in the future might consist of half a dozen historians who, as well as being experts in their discipline fill some of the following roles: an email facilitator, a web page designer, an Internet resource researcher, a content presenter. Knowledge will no longer reside at the centre, immovable, transcendental: a lumpy object around which circulate researchers, mining it for gems to then distribute to eager students. Instead, like film-making, teaching will be organised around the process of communication between makers and audiences. The 'knowledge' will exist precisely in the way that texts are read by their audiences.

I have no illusions as to the status of this model: it is a creative fiction that appeals to me, at the moment, for particular purposes in trying to make sense of the ARROW experience. No doubt, like most fictions, I will grow weary of it and need to seek out some alternatives. I would not expect that many others will accept my fiction: but I would suggest that we need these fictions if we are to really make the best out of the opportunities which the information revolution now offers.

References

Allen, Matthew (1996). Applied Reasoning - Resources on the Web. http://www.curtin.edu.au/learn/unit/10846/

Negroponte, Nicholas (1995). Being Digital. London: Hodder & Stoughton.

Penley, Constance and Andrew Ross (1991). Cyborgs at large: An interview with Donna Haraway. In Penley and Ross (eds), Technoculture. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Rushkoff, Douglas (1994). Cyberia: Life in the trenches of hyperspace. San Francisco: Harper San Francisco.

Turkle, Sherry (1995). Life on the Screen: identity in the age of the Internet. New York: Simon & Schuster.

Please cite as: Allen, M. (1997). ARROW: On Target with the World Wide Web. In Pospisil, R. and Willcoxson, L. (Eds), Learning Through Teaching, p1-5. Proceedings of the 6th Annual Teaching Learning Forum, Murdoch University, February 1997. Perth: Murdoch University. http://lsn.curtin.edu.au/tlf/tlf1997/allen.html


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